When I see an infected in The Last of Us Part 2, I keep my cool. Even when it’s a jump scare, or an unexpected enemy, I generally know how to deal with most of the things the game makes me kill. Heights, though? Now those make me pause.
It’s funny, because I’ve never been particularly scared of heights in video games — most of them make you climb things, tall things. Naughty Dog has an entire franchise predicated on scaling exciting and exotic locations. But when I play as Abby in The Last of Us 2, I’m keenly aware of how high up we go.
It’s intentional. Early on, we are informed that Abby, one of the protagonists during the second half of the game, is scared of heights. As Naughty Dog sound designer Beau Anthony Jimenez recently shared on Twitter, the game has an elaborate breathing system that takes into account what the player’s heart rate is relative to what they are doing. “Breath can be an excellent conveyor of emotion!” Jimenez said in the thread.
Abby's vertigo was also integrated into this system. The vertigo game data that affects the camera talks to the audio middleware to play different breathing if Abby is looking over a ledge. The volume & intensity is affected by how much or little you're looking over!— Beau Anthony Jimenez (@thebeauanthony) July 18, 2020
As a part of that system, Abby is programmed to experience vertigo when you look over a tall ledge. In these moments, Abby breathes heavily, and the camera loses focus. It’s an effective detail, too. During a level where Abby is tasked with climbing some makeshift bridges connecting incredibly high buildings, I straight up had to stop playing for a second to compose myself. It is probably the closest thing a video game has come to approximating a panic attack. I felt the sound design in my chest, and strangely, my own breathing changed alongside Abby’s. Mind you, I’m not particularly scared of heights in real life, but there I was, trying to calm myself down!
As Jimenez goes on to explain in a different Tweet thread, Abby’s animations are also rigged to put her terror on display. You can see, hear, and feel her vulnerability in a surprisingly palpable way, which might explain why heights are now scarier to me in this game than, say, a Clicker.
Abby Vertigo used this as well. Troy Slough (@Troy_Slough) & Karina V. were able to animate a Abby's upper body for Abby's big, terrified breaths. The upper body & facial animations were sync'd, driven by the sound.— Beau Anthony Jimenez (@thebeauanthony) July 18, 2020
This brought an organic feel to her human vulnerability.
The level, it should be said, is one of the best ones in the entire game. Through it, Abby — a veritable badass — confronts her biggest fears with the help of Lev, a teen who turns out to be deceptively wise. Lev gently walks Abby through all the obstacles, checking in on her as they go, and hyping her up when she doubts she can keep going. It’s a great moment of bonding between the two characters, one that made me care about them both, especially as Lev also shares his own phobias. It also helps that Naughty Dog has some great comedic timing.
Abby: facing her biggest fear, trying not to die, breathing hard, nearly losing it— Patricia Hernandez (@xpatriciah) July 14, 2020
Lev: so what’s going on with you and Owen?